In his Wikipedia entry, and in the Don Chaput biography (Dr. Goodfellow Physician to the Gunfighters, Scholar, and Bon Vivant. Westernlore Press 1996.), George Goodfellow is credited with having performed, in July 1881, possibly the first ever gunshot wound ‘laparotomy’ – that is, the surgical procedure of cutting open the torso to remove a bullet and/or to repair the damage caused by the bullet. Up until this point a ‘gut shot’ was a life-and-death lottery: life depended on the bullet having bypassed the vital organs; death could be slow, lingering and painful, the consequence of any combination of internal bleeding, organ damage and sepsis.
Sepsis was the barrier that had hitherto kept the surgeon’s scalpel at bay – to open up the torso was the greater risk, with death by infection more certain than death by bullet.
Goodfellow was ahead of the game in accepting the still relatively new ‘germ theory’ propounded by Joseph Lister, and persuaded of the antiseptic properties of dilute carbolic acid. Most doctors of the time still clung to ‘miasma theory’, the notion that infection was somehow present in invisible airborne dirt.
In 1889, Goodfellow published an article in The Southern California Practitioner, with the title: CASES OF GUNSHOT WOUND OF THE ABDOMEN TREATED BY OPERATION. He states “Jack Smith, male, English, aged 47, was brought to my hospital July 9, 1881, suffering from a gunshot wound of the abdomen, received in a fight in the Huachuca mountains five days before, July 4, 1881…[The date of the injury, Independence Day, leads me to speculate that the Englishman may have become embroiled as a result of a drunken slur on the legitimacy of our former colony] …Four days after, seeing that he was rapidly sinking, I determined to perform an operation, the feasibility of which I had been considering for some time; i.e., open up the abdomen, clean it and sew up the intestinal wounds. Accordingly on July 13, I operated… the convalescence was uninterrupted and the patient was discharged from the hospital August 19 1881.”
So far, so admirable…
Goodfellow continues: “The next case, in chronological order [editorial underlining], was one under the care of my friend Dr. H. M. Matthews, which I saw during its progress, but was not in attendance.” He proceeds to give a briefer account of the operation: “J. Diss, aged 48, was wounded on the evening of June 4, 1882…” I suspend the account at this point because it is the date that becomes relevant.
While researching for the play, one of my key sources has been the diary of Goodfellow’s friend George Parsons (A Tenderfoot in Tombstone. The Private Journal of George Whitwell Parsons: The Turbulent Years: 1880-1882. Ed. Lynn R Bailey. Westernlore Press 1996.) I was dismayed to discover a discrepancy in the dates, that delivered a serious threat to the proposed central scene of the play. Parsons’ entry for Sunday, July 3, 1881 delivers judgement on a significant piece of local scandal: “After church and while trying to find Mr. Ed Hudson tonight on Allen Street – Carleton shot Diss probably mortally. As soon as I discovered it to be Carleton who did the shooting, I immediately knew before inquiring who it was he shot, that it was Diss. All a bad crowd. Diss has brought it all on himself. Mrs Carleton the cause. Have known this some time and noticed Carleton’s changed appearance, though he’s a bad egg too, I guess, as well as his wife.” What was that date again? July 3, 1881. Goodfellow says June, Parsons says July. The difference of only a month places the operations on English miner Jack Smith and wronged husband John Diss as being nearly concurrent. So, technically, whose operation came first?
I shared my concerns with Dr Dan Judkins, the American surgeon and Goodfellow enthusiast that I had met on my research trip: “This puts Diss’s arrival at Cochise County Hospital one day before the shooting of Jack Smith, who didn’t arrive at the hospital until five days later, July 9th, with Goodfellow operating on him on the 13th. Goodfellow is a little (uncharacteristically?) vague about the date of Matthews’ op on Diss:”…eight or ten days after the reception of the injury”. If we go with the larger of those two figures it means that Matthews operated on Diss, with Goodfellow as observer, on the same day as Goodfellow’s op on Smith. Go with the smaller figure it was two days before.”
Bear with me, dear reader, but if one is purporting to stage history these little details matter when it comes to the integrity of a person’s claim to fame and posterity.
Dan Judkins was sympathetic in his reply: “This all does underscore the difficulty of doing history. We are forced to deal with the written records, as they are. The usual assumption is that they are honest and valid. Rarely does anyone raise the question of possible personal bias by the ones writing the original records… Maybe “liar” would be an accurate term, but maybe too strong. One can get one’s own role in events twisted up and re-interpreted a bit over time (1881 or 1882 until time of writing in 1889) without intentionally lying. And others always see the same events a bit different.”
In his article, Goodfellow is, after all, generous in sharing credit with his older colleague: “Whether these cases may be called ‘laparotomy for gunshot wound of the intestine’… Matthews and myself are entitled, so far as I know, to credit for the first operations of the kind.”
On this basis I prepared to reconceive my central scene with Jack Smith and John Diss occupying adjacent beds at Tombstone County Hospital. This I came to see as a bonus: it made for a much more interesting scene; cast the doctors in Tombstone as a more authentically collegiate community; and Matthews had become a more essential character.
So far, so acceptable…
However, I had also shared my concerns with biographer Don Chaput, who was rapidly becoming a valued historical consultant. He replied with a bombshell:
“In case you don’t have them handy, I am attaching the two key Tombstone newspaper articles, that of Diss from 1881 and of Smith in 1882.”
So, not only had Goodfellow moved Matthews’ operation back a year; he’d moved his own operation forward a year! Surely this was no accident excusable by vagueness of recall.
The Tombstone Epitaph’s article on the 1881 Diss operation is unreserved in its characteristic purple prose in the attribution of credit: “This operation may be ranked among the more celebrated in the long category that fill the annals of surgery. Were the patient a more celebrated man, the names of Drs. Matthews and Millar might be sent to the four quarters of the globe upon the lightning’s wings, thus giving them worldwide notoriety.”
Fast forward to confirm my suspicions by seeing what diarist George Parsons has to say for July 1882. To my frustration, this volume of the Journal stops short at Tuesday, June 27: “Got things together today for tomorrow’s trip… A boil may detain me but I hope not.” As it happens, my later Amazon delivery of The Devil has Foreclosed. The Private Journal of George Whitwell Parsons: The Concluding Arizona Years, 1882-87, finds no mention of Goodfellow’s clearly less remarkable operation.
Don Chaput is charitable: “So far as I know, Mathews and Goodfellow never had a bad word to say about each other, and you can read in several Goodfellow publications where he readily and favorably gives credit to Mathews for various things. Although Goodfellow’s name is not listed in the article (1881), I can’t imagine that he would not have discussed the matter with Mathews, maybe was even called in on the case a day or so later. Anyway, it doesn’t have to be unraveled to the enth degree to establish that both events were in the forefront of medical practice, and that they happened on the Western frontier makes them even more unusual.”
I am inclined to be a little less charitable: when Goodfellow wrote his article Matthews was no longer alive, so his claims could go unchallenged from that quarter.
So, was George Goodfellow a liar? I’m afraid overwhelming evidence suggests that’s a resounding
So where does this leave my central scene? Matthews was an elder colleague and friend, if not something of a mentor. They shared an office above the Crystal Palace saloon next door to that of Virgil Earp. It is still plausible that Goodfellow was ahead of his colleague on the subject of antisepsis and that his advice and influence played a significant part in Matthews’ decision to operate. As a liar, Goodfellow becomes a more flawed and interesting character; and his deception illustrates a not uncommon rivalry among scientists for posterity.
And Goodfellow still has many other unchallenged claims to recognition: he did still go on to become arguably the US’s leading expert on gunshot wounds; he may well have performed the first ever perineal prostatectomy; and his mercy mission to attend to the victims of a Mexican earthquake make him a pioneer of disaster medicine.
(Sigh!) It would have been so much easier to print the legend…